LabourList: A call to arms

with 7 comments

This article first appeared on LabourList

For those who stand outside the austerity consensus, reading Len McCluskey’s columnon Tuesday was like coming up for air.

It is a cause of deep frustration that, as the Tories’ economic policies are shown to fail (in terms of jobs, growth, consumer confidence, economic inactivity and borrowing levels), the Labour leadership has moved to legitimise them. I’ve written elsewhereabout why Ed Balls’ declaration that “My starting point is, I am afraid, we are going to have keep all these cuts” is politically disastrous, and indeed it was jubilantly used by David Cameron to beat Ed Miliband across the head with at today’s PMQs. But in truth, it is difficult for even the most diehard leadership loyalist to sum up Labour’s current strategy on the cuts and the deficit. The Tories are shaping the argument, and no coherent alternative is being offered.

What is perhaps most galling about Balls’ intervention is that it came as Standard & Poor of all institutions offered the missing coherent case against austerity as it downgraded the credit ratings of nine European nations. Justifying its decision, it said: “We believe that a reform process based on a pillar of fiscal austerity alone risks becoming self-defeating, as domestic demand falls in line with consumers’ rising concerns about job security and disposable incomes, eroding national tax revenues.” Balls has referred to it in passing, but it was of course eclipsed by the rest of his statement.

The commitment to a public sector pay freeze may have even worse consequences. Given the rate of inflation, Labour has committed to a pay cut for dinner ladies, nurses, teachers, bin collectors, and so on. A false choice is being presented – that it’s either pay or jobs. But if millions of public sector workers have less to spend, consumer demand will be hit, and considerable numbers of private sector workers will almost certainly lose their jobs as a consequence. Labour’s position is more than symbolic, though. Now the Opposition is committed to the Government’s position on pay, it completely undermines the union case against it. Labour’s leadership has allowed itself to become an outrider for the Government.

Given Labour’s failure to challenge the Tory agenda, the fact that Len McCluskey has acted as a voice of sanity at a time of economic madness is welcome in itself. Miliband talks a lot about a return to the 1980s, but McCluskey more accurately points out we’re experiencing a 1930s Comeback Tour: when all main parties converged around the same disastrous economic course. But McCluskey’s intervention is far more significant in other ways.

Many party activists and trade unionists may not happy with the direction of the Labour leadership. But the truth is that it is an expression of where we’re at politically. The left and the broader labour movement were battered and beaten in the 1980s, and never recovered. Today, there exists no left either with mass support or a coherent alternative, either within the Labour Party, or outside it. There’s lots of pressure dragging the Labour leadership towards the Tories’ position: the presence of hardened Blairite elements, a hegemonic government, the media, big business, the City, and so on. I’m afraid it also includes broader public opinion which, while believing cuts are too far and too fast, still believes them necessary: unsurprising after years of being bombarded with pro-cuts propaganda, with no alternative being offered.

If the left wants the Labour leadership to change course, it has to build pressure that currently does not exist. And that’s why McCluskey’s intervention is important and should be built on.

There is currently a divide in the labour movement between those who accept the underlying case of what the Tories are doing, with just nuances to separate them from the Government: or the Surrender Tendency as I call them. On the other hand, there are those who want a coherent alternative to the Tory agenda: I can’t think of a good label for them, so I’ll stick with the Alternatives (even though it sounds a bit like a girl band). The problem is the Surrender Tendency happen to be concentrated in the Labour leadership. The Alternatives have a lot of support in the broader membership, but they are not organised.

McCluskey’s intervention should be treated as a kick up the backside for the Alternatives. We need to organise so we can put pressure on the Labour leadership, challenge the Tory and media consensus, and shift public opinion.

McCluskey is in a good position to help lead this charge. He can’t be dismissed by Tories and Blairites as the mouthpiece for public sector “vested interests”: although his union represents thousands of public sector workers, most of its membership are private sector workers who are themselves being hammered by the crisis.

We need to get the Alternatives together: party activists, MPs, trade union leaders and members, activists from community and campaign groups, journalists, bloggers, and so on.

Then we have to move from ‘There Has To Be An Alternative’ to ‘There Is An Alternative’. We could start by calling on the likes of Nobel Prize-winning Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, both trenchant critics of the suicidal economic strategies of British and European leaders. We also have progressive economists we can draw on here, such as Graham Turner and Richard Murphy. Rather than a fragmented ideological objection to what the Government is doing, we need to develop a coherent alternative economic argument that can be communicated in a way that resonates with people. Let’s call it The Plan.

Not all Alternatives will be happy with The Plan. Some will have to treat it as a start. But we have to stick with one clear, convincing message that we can hammer away at with every given opportunity.

We’ll then push The Plan everywhere: through supportive journalists, social media, in party and union branches, stalls in every town centre, poster and leafletting campaigns, newspaper adverts, and so on. It will give the Alternatives something to unite around in the labour movement – and crucially, drag the leadership away from a course of surrender.

My fear is that – if we do not act – the Labour leadership will spend the next few years continuing to retreat to the Tory agenda. That will cement David Cameron as the third transformative Prime Minister of post-war Britain, after Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. It will be argued that there is ‘no going back’, that reversing the Tories’ programme is politically impossible. Cameron will have transformed Britain irreversibly.

That’s why we have to get our act together, and why we should treat Len McCluskey’s piece as a call to arms. Let’s stop our sulking, and get organising.

Written by Owen Jones

January 20, 2012 at 10:34 am

7 Responses

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  1. Owen,

    Very much enjoyed your article Attitude: Being gay is a class act … All very true & being gay ‘lumped into’ the same category often means that we meet other ‘like minded’ folk from an owner of British Midland Airways (Sir Mike ) to your milkman!

    Just joined Flicker so will keep an eye out for you.. Are you in fb too ?

    Chris x

    Christopher Bowman

    January 20, 2012 at 2:57 pm

  2. There needs to be aggressive action against the Labour party for this nonsense. The average Labour politician should now be rendered persona non grata and left in no doubt that their Tory embrace is about as welcome as a turd in a swimming pool! People only have themselves to blame if they keep on voting for these maniacs. Which reminds me, one of the Four Horseman of the Austerity Apocalypse was on BBC1 QT last night – the odious Stephen Twigg. Carolyn Lucas was sadly a rare voice of comparitive sanity.

    Andrew Wallace

    January 20, 2012 at 7:57 pm

  3. This makes a great deal of sense – unlike Ed Balls, who has just undone the good work done in demolishing Gideon Whyborne at the despatch box. My thoughts are when do we get this rolling?

    Clem the Gem

    January 21, 2012 at 1:13 am

  4. Hi Owen,

    excellent and insightful analysis – well done! Thanks for the link to McCluskey’s article as I was busy this week and missed it in the laughs over putting parts of bibles in schools and spending money for a boat for already rich people (i.e. the monarchy).

    I worry about the social democratic movements, or what is left of them, as they have shifted rightward over the past 30 years. The so-called 3rd Way we now know does not lead to real prosperity, stability or a better future; it does lead to disillusioned voters.

    The scale of the current financial-economic crisis is such that mere austerity will not do the job. In the old days austerity would be a band aid over serious problems, this time it is like leeching a dying patient and hoping that in the process he/she gets better. The consequences of further cuts to the public sector are common sense as you note — they will affect jobs in the private sector and a vicious circle will have been created that will intensify the recession.

    Suggestions for change.

    In the short-term, perhaps a stimulus programme on infrastructure, health care, education (particularly higher education), agriculture (i.e. food security), investment in green technologies and renewable sources of energy would not only infuse money into the economy and stimulate hiring, but it would help preserve and enhance the UK’s ability to navigate a very difficult future. Retro-fitting homes to make them more energy-efficient would also help employ people and save money in the long-run.

    The Anglo-American model of capitalism has to compete against the French-German model and the East Asian model of capitalism, the latter is particularly dynamic and enjoys state-directed support for higher education, investment in technology, innovation etc. What is the current UK government’s strategy for competing with East Asia’s high tech hubs? Singapore, China, Taiwan and South Korea in particular have such support. I am not saying that our societies should become like those of East Asia but the UK once had a lead in the technology of much of industry. Now that has been lost. If other countries can lean how to do it well so can the West.

    Re-regulation of the financial industry is needed. They may threaten to run but where can they go and thrive as the whole world is suffering? Also, the UK needs to repatriate funds that have been secreted offshore (i.e. tax evasion) by large corporations.

    I would add that the Left needs to establish think-tanks or strengthen existing ones to deal with the issues that are affecting our societies because our capitalists have become lazy and inefficient. Roughly a century ago the British empire was at its height but even then, in this poignant commentary from the Guardian, you can see the decline in manufacturing quality:

    Owen mentions nobel-prize winning economists such as Krugman and Stiglitz. They provide an excellent antidote of common sense against the hysteria/panic and foolishness of the right. You may wish to add Jack Rasmus. Although his work is American-centric at times, given the similarities between the US and UK capitalist systems, his analysis is transferable to the UK. Here’s a link to some of his work where he predicts that the UK will go into recession because of the conservative’s austerity:

    So your call to arms is a great idea: “challenge the Tory and media consensus, and shift public opinion.” This is necessary given the corporate ownership of the media and people desperately need to hear about alternatives to the current austerity.

    By doing the organizing that you mention towards the end of your article, you will revitalize the Labour party and help the country. Moreover, your actions will act as a beacon of hope for people across the UK and other countries. This is particularly vital because the scale and depth of the coming recession will paralyse and demoralize many people.

    Best wishes for your success.

    Sean R

    January 21, 2012 at 5:10 am

  5. A couple of hours before I read your blog I sent the following email to the Labour Party HQ:
    Dear Ed Miliband and colleagues
    I am a member of the Labour Party and I am frustrated at the impossibility of ever getting in touch with the leadership to make my views known. I have tried on a number of occasions to email the party but never get any reply. I am clearly not a member of the privileged few who obviously have a different set of email addresses and can get their views made known easily and directly. At a time when the opportunities for instant contact have never been greater, it has become more and more difficult to contact the leaders of my party. This is an inversion of democracy.

    The decision by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to announce policy changes or interpretations of policy on the cuts is a good case in point. Why has the party membership not been consulted on this issue? I am sure the vast majority of the members think it was a rash, wrong and foolish decision to put out these garbled statements about supporting the cuts. It is self-evident that Labour could not change the cuts. We are not likely to come back into office for several years. It is therefore an irrelevant and muddled point to make now. Time will have moved on. The task for Labour then will be to draw up new policies which will take the effects of the current cuts into account. Members do not want to hear byzantine wrigglings on the point of a pin of the sort Ed& Ed are making. They want to hear a sustained onslaught on the issues that really exercise people – bankers’ bonuses, redundancies, lack of growth. If we were to do this, we would build up lots of confidence and support that would hold us in good stead in the future at the next election. We should be concentrating on appealing to those low-paid electors who have not bothered to vote in the past in order to make sure they vote for us at the next election. We should bother less about what the rich think about us.

    As someone who re-joined the Labour Party after the last election, I am becoming very disillusioned very quickly. I can get my views known more by writing letters to the Guardian than I can by being a member of the Labour Party and by trying to contact the leadership (and I have to pay my membership to boot).

    It will be interesting to see if I get any response to this. So far I have never received a personal response to any of my emails – only the mass mail-outs, supposedly personalised – from ‘Ed’ or ‘Liam’ or ‘Tessa’ etc etc. I find them insulting (especially when I am out at 7 am at the tube station leafleting for a Labour mayoral victory).

    Yours in hope
    Gillian Dalley

    Gillian Dalley

    January 21, 2012 at 8:59 pm

  6. I agree with both you and Len McCluskey that the labour party is lost it’s way and will loose the next election if they continue with Tory policies that have been proved not to work His end statement, “It is time for those who want a real alternative centred on investment, job creation and public intervention to end the slump – and a Labour party that will articulate that to get organised in parliament and outside”, is spot on, when will the Labour Party begin to listen to the people the are meant to serve.

    June Walker

    January 23, 2012 at 1:15 pm

  7. well done a young thinking man with a brain and a hottie too!
    Look forward to more of your contibutions.
    Have good 2012, mate

    david mc geoghan-powell

    January 24, 2012 at 7:19 am

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